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Play of Fancy

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      Sometimes, when Wakaba takes a walk alone, she likes to imagine herself a carefree lady enjoying a very fine afternoon. On those delightful days, she draws herself up tall and slows her pace to a stroll while adjusting the backpack on her shoulders, which of course is really a beautiful silk kimono that complements her surroundings perfectly. Her soft brown eyes she casts about delicately, to indicate interest - though not too much interest, of course - in all of the signs of the season. And because she is so noble, well-bred and gently raised, why, she hardly seems to notice all of the young men who strain to catch a glimpse of her. (For so much does she sparkle with elegance and radiance that of course they look at her.)

      To be sure, it isn’t always easy to concentrate on such nice things! There are those summer days when a sudden downpour spoils both her “dress” and her dreaming - when she can neither ignore her forgotten umbrella nor conjure up a suitor to graciously lend her one. Worse, for the entire week before exams, “Lady Wakaba” often catches herself reciting geometry theorems instead of pretty words from a play or movie. Her friends are no help, either, because when they spot her and call out an invitation, she forgets all about prim-and-proper and hurries over to play volleyball or share a treat instead.

      And today, alas, seems to be one of those days. Despite her careful steps, the scatterings of late-fall trees snap and crinkle like crumpled paper beneath her saddle shoes; finally, Wakaba can't help but scowl, her pretty imaginings just ruined by reality. A real princess would never clop down an autumn path like a horse, and besides, her uniform looks and feels nothing like a precious gown!

      She lets out a heavy sigh, and can almost hear her mother’s voice, chiding her with a verse appropriate to the situation - maybe the one about the water-like walk of a gentle maiden. It would instruct her to be more delicate and less strident, and that’s just the sort of thing Wakaba needs. And she does listen to her family, really she does; with her whole heart she intends to follow their advice! She means to lift her hands to cover her face and stifle her loudest laughs, to act like a fine lady all of the time and not just imagine it. But just like the leaves beneath her boisterous feet, Wakaba cannot long be silent, if at all. Her hands so often forget to be bashful; they ball into fists and push into her hips instead. She shrieks when she is happy and yells at people who do mean things, and all of the poems about quiet joy and melodious whispers just seem wasted on her.

      No, it isn’t any use; Wakaba has always been thoroughly, indecorously Wakaba, and this, she supposes, is both good and bad: a plus and minus that cancel each other out to leave only ordinary remaining. That’s one lesson Wakaba has learned well, both in school and at home: she is not a “proper” girl, and certainly isn’t special. Even the dry autumn leaves, which flutter in the breezes and shiver on their branches and don’t speak a single word, enchant people in a way that she can’t! For years Wakaba has carefully watched everybody who is anybody, without coming any closer to solving their mystery. She just can’t figure out what quality makes a person worthy or loved or esteemed, hasn’t found even one hobby or after-school activity – and she’s tried nearly all of them! – that might gild her simple self with some extraordinary allure. And today, she doesn’t quite feel like a glorious princess or noble lady-in-waiting, no matter how hard her imagination tries. She’s just Wakaba, plain tree-trunk Wakaba: sturdy, brown, and reliable, easy to ignore in favour of flashier leaves.

      But such thoughts are just too depressing, and she shakes her head, her pigtails snapping their usual rebuke on her ears. She hates these drooping moods, which come to her seldomly but stick around so stubbornly. Wakaba Shinohara is not a girl who gives up, and she refuses to sit around moping at anybody - no, not her! Instead, she's going to be by herself, in a place that she knows none of her friends will look (and where, she assumes, none of her many admirers have yet been able to find her). And that's why she's traipsing now down the east path of campus, to the very edge of Hou'ou Mountain, where her Top-Secret Spot - a private palace all her own - waits for her to arrive.

      Okay, it isn’t actually a palace, though it’s made of wood and marble just the same. It’s really nothing but a pile of dust and stone and stained damask, which used to make up classrooms and corridors but now rests all quiet and mysterious and forlorn, like a haunted ruin in an old English novel. Oh, she hasn’t seen any ghosts yet, but she keeps visiting the place anyway - maybe because no-one else does, because it too is overlooked. The map of Ohtori Academy shows nothing on the site, and nobody she's asked (cleverly and with complete discretion, of course!) can say what hall it once was. Wakaba doesn't know how it fell or why its rubble remains uncleared. But that little ignorance doesn't bother her much.

      After all, there are lots of things she doesn't know, though she’s an upperclassman and had hoped to be so much smarter by now! She really can't remember why the leaves fall, though she learned the science of it when she was just a little girl. She's pretty sure that she used to have a different best friend, whose name she can't recall and whose face looks different every time she tries to envision it. And she doesn't understand why she imagines a gleaming sword whenever she hears the word "special," except that it's from some memory lost to her now. Or maybe it was a dream she once had, or a story she started writing and never finished...

      So rush her private thoughts, tumbling over each other like blowing leaves while Wakaba walks to that hall-no-longer, whose secret heart seems a silent friend to hers. There she folds herself upon an outcropping of rubble, an unseen princess holding court upon her very own throne. Her tender-bud hopes for the future she pours out to the waiting ruin, weaving around her a world in which she is exquisite and gifted and radiantly, undeniably special. And while she talks, sometimes without seeming to stop for breath, it's surely only her vivid imagination that almost hears encouragement in the passing wind:

      Deeper. Go deeper.